Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Chronicles Introduction

I'm really excited to start Chronicles.  Excited and a little nervous, I suppose.  I'm excited because it's always fun to read a new book, and nervous because Chronicles is almost the exact same book as Kings in nearly every way.  I remember the first time I read Chronicles I would think to myself, "wait, do I really have to read all these stories again?"  The worst part is when you get to the list of kings, and it's just a long sequence of names that you don't really recognize, understand or remember.  It might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that we just went through a long sequence of names that we don't recognize or remember, and now we have to read another list... of the very same kings.  I remember skimming through this book aggressively and filing it away in my brain as "kinda like Kings except with a lengthy genealogy in the beginning".

But fear not, trusty readers: there are many fascinating details and stories in this book, and with patience we should be able to gain genuine insights into the historical period in which this book was written and what it can speak to us in the present about God's heart and God's ways amongst his people.

I think the best way to look at Chronicles is that it's like Samuel and Kings rebooted.  People do this all the time with popular movies, writing and producing the exact same movie except that it's "modern", like different actors and new special effects and stuff like that.    With Chronicles, it's like the history of Israel taken from the Pentateuch, Samuel and Kings except it's been updated and contextualized for the "modern" generation.  At least, it was modern back in 500 BCE.  It doesn't seem modern or hip or fresh to us now, but it was probably a significant shift at the time.

The similarities between Kings and Chronicles are fairly broad.  Like Kings, Chronicles was originally written as a single work and only split into a 1st and 2nd book hundreds of years later, likely when it was translated by the authors of the Septuagint (Greek OT).  And like Kings, Chronicles was written in a similar timeframe, somewhat after the Jews had started returning to the promised land after they were exiled to Babylon, while Kings was written during the exile or only briefly after.  Lastly, Chronicles has a very similar writing style to Kings, with a thematic structure revolving around the progression of kings, emphasizing the changes in Israel's spiritual climate under one king versus another.  Under the good kings, we see a renewal in Israel's relationship with God, and under bad kings we see its degradation.

Much as I am emphasizing the similarity to the book of Kings (similar writing style, time frame and themes), there are quite a few differences as well.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the book of Chronicles focuses almost exclusively on the kings and history of Judah (the southern kingdom), while the book of Kings arguably spends more time on the history of Israel (the northern kingdom) than Judah.  In the book of Kings, we spent multiple chapters reading about Elijah and Elisha.  In the book of Kings, Elijah is mentioned 63 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned once.  In the book of Kings, Elisha is mentioned roughly 52 times; in the book of Chronicles, he is mentioned exactly zero times.  Both Elijah and Elisha were predominantly sent to Israel, hence when the history of Israel is omitted, these prophets also disappear from Chronicles.

Even when describing the kings of Judah, Chronicles adds quite a bit to some stories, filling in a lot of the gaps and omissions in the book of Kings.  In other parts, many stories are left out, especially as it relates to David and Solomon.  The author of Chronicles leaves out nearly everything about David and Solomon that paint them in a negative light.  For instance, he does not describe: David's sin with Bathsheba and Uriah, the succession crisis when Adonijah tried to steal the kingship, Absalom's rebellion, and Solomon's later idolatry when he marries foreign women.  Since this establishes a clear pattern of trying to make David and Solomon look good (perhaps, look better than they actually were), one would naturally ask why would Chronicles leave these stories out?

It's possible the author of Chronicles is trying to create, or is himself clouded by, a perception of a more idealistic past that the Jews could seek to rebuild.  Since Chronicles is pretty clearly post-exilic, the people of Judah are now returning to their homeland for the first time in a generation and trying to rebuild their nation.  The book of Chronicles is perhaps trying to cast a vision for what the nation should aspire to: a united people serving God under a righteous king.  It's hard to say for sure, though.

Another big difference between this book and Kings is the aforementioned genealogy.  I believe this is the longest and most thorough genealogy in the bible.  While I'm going to discuss the details of this genealogy in the coming chapters, what I want to say now is that Chronicles spends a lot of time and energy trying to establish the continuity of their "present day" at the time it was written and the history of David, Solomon and even the earlier patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The genealogy does this directly by showing the lines of inheritance between these respective historical figures into the present day, and Chronicle's deep focus on the temple in Jerusalem and God's covenant with Israel establishes continuity in a more spiritual way.  Through these two topics, Chronicles places the post-exilic Judah as both the biological and spiritual inheritors of the promised land, through natural descent and God's promise.  The temple becomes a rallying point that they can gather around both as an artifact of their previous dominion over the land, as well as a symbol of God's enduring promise that they would possess the land forever.

In a manner of speaking, the book of Chronicles is appealing to the past as a way to bolster their legitimacy and claims on the land into the future.  This is particularly relevant in the post-exilic period because the people may not feel like the land of Judah is "their place" without understanding their historical presence in the area.

In summary, Chronicles is a book written primarily for the people of Judah, focusing on the history of Judah, it describes David and Solomon in idealistic terms to establish a historical "golden age" that they could aspire to rebuild when returning from exile, and it seeks to establish a continuity with the past to both justify and inspire Judah's reoccupation of the promised land and Jerusalem.  In all of these aspects, Chronicles is really a product of its time.

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